NCDs as a Barrier to Social and Economic Development in Asia

NCDFREE is a global social movement, by, for and about young people – against the world’s leading cause of deaths: Non-Communicable Disease. Launched in 2013 at Harvard University and the University of Melbourne’s Festival of Ideas, NCDFREE brings young, local change-makers from around the world to tell their stories and their visions for a world free from preventable NCDs. To engage their peers and inspire global action.

This is the first in a series of articles from our change-makers. Bangladeshi nutritional epidemiologist Shusmita Khan tells us her vision as a young leader in NCDs.


I come from a small country with large population and larger challenges – Bangladesh. At the same time it’s also a land of potential, prosperity and possibilities. Often times there will be multiple challenges to manage and all would need similar attention. And also often times by giving attention to something we tend to forget things with similar urgent need of attention. And I suppose it’s like any other developing country on this world.

The NCDFREE Melbourne LaunchOn 5 October this year in Melbourne, a group of young professionals gathered with a dream – the Melbourne launch of NCDFREE. A dream of having a NCDFREE world – a world FREE of preventable NCDs. As a part of this huge but humble initiative, my idea of dream always starts with stories. Stories of happiness and stories of helplessness and stories of hope! Stories of the human face of NCDs. Of real people, living, dying and surviving.

I was born cancer. As a star sign of course! This made me funny, creative and emotional! But lets say the word cancer again! Cancer. What do you think of when you hear this word? Something that comes to your life, uninvited! Something that tries to stop your course of life and make you count your days! Something that gives you the courage to fight back, to see the end of this legacy of death! Ever wondered how this six-letter word changes our life and affects a whole family? Lets hear a story!

Masuda and ChhondaJust like any other 23 year-old, life for Masuda was beautiful. She had a loving husband, and a baby girl – Chhonda. Suddenly, without warning, Masuda’s chronic stomach-ache turned out to be colon cancer. Without wasting a single moment, the young couple came to Dhaka – the capital – for better treatment where her doctors decided to operate. Surgery meant removal of her intestine followed by rounds of chemo. Surgery also meant a huge financial burden to this young couple and they put their whole future at stake. Months of intensive care with her doctors, Masuda came back to Chhonda. The couple started getting better mentally and financially as well – with some struggles of course. But this was not happiness ever after! The six-letter came back like a déjà vu! The worries and struggles all are back again. Again surgery. Doctors. Hospital corridors. Late night. Anxious moments. Prayers. Debt, loans, more mortgages and borrowing! Three months of all this and at the end this time Masuda doesn’t make it! Now all Masuda’s family has is a lifetime worth of worries of how to give Chhonda a better life with so much of debt! For many, life is beautiful, but for this young couple and lovely Chhonda, life is beautifully cruel . . .

Bangladesh Cancer Support GroupHow do I come across these stories? From 2011 our organization Eminence with a group of volunteers are trying to change the story lines through Bangladesh Cancer Support Group – by raising funds. By making innovative approaches to match cancer patients from wealthy family to donate cost for one round of chemotherapy or radiotherapy to a cancer patient from a resource poor family. Baby steps that are always in need of support from all ordinary person like you and me. Does these baby steps solves the whole problem? No it does not. Because when you are talking about Cancer there is no magic solution that can save lives. For families living in resource poor settings, cancer is just another way of spiraling back below the poverty line, right back in the struggling phase. This is just another example of how a NCD can change the storyline of a happy family. This is also an opportunity for people like you and me to change the storyline through initiatives like our cancer support group.

In 2011, when the United Nations high-level meeting on NCDs was taking place, I wrote a blog called the “three letters”. The basic idea about the blog was how we missed the train back in 2000 by not having three letters in there. The letters were “N, C and D”. These missing alphabets costed us 15 years backlog from getting into the global development agenda of Millennium Development Goals, the MDGs. Today, we are at the verge of replacing those global development goals with new ones and life has given us a second chance as a global community. A chance to have those letters in the next focus agenda and changing the course of tomorrow. A chance to recognize that in my country, your country and all countries – NCDs are a barrier to development!

In September 2013 during the 68th UN-GA Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke about the post 2015 agenda – sustainable development goals – and in his speech there was only one line on NCDs. Just one line for the highest cause of deaths and disabilities. Just one line for the issues that will ensure breaking the sustainability of any development.

As a young professional, I believe we can and must do better – for the millions around the world who face or will face NCDs. For people like Masuda and little Chhonda! We must keep the conversation going. We must demand that our leaders see these are issues of poverty everywhere – and ensure they are no longer the forgotten burden anywhere.

Let’s keep being engaged and let’s keep trying to change the course of tomorrow – toward an NCDFREE world!

This article was commissioned by NCDFREE, in collaboration with Remedy Healthcare and Local Peoples.

Shusmita Khan is a Senior Associate Coordinator in a Bangladesh based NGO – Eminence ( Ms. Khan was trained as a nutritionist in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  

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